- Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen by Christopher Abram
With Myths of the Pagan North, Abram has produced an erudite and thoroughly absorbing cultural history of the construction and appropriation of Norse myth through the medieval period. The book moves beyond the actual myths themselves to examine, through case studies and detailed interpretation, their evolution as a cultural phenomenon from roughly 850 to 1350.
In the opening chapter, he provides a solid introduction to the source of Norse myth - the variety of evidence through archaeological, runic inscriptions, and picture stones, and the mass of written evidence both by members of Norse-speaking peoples and those who watched, observed, and at times, attempted to convert them. In some ways, the sheer lack of clear evidence and the obvious limitations of all the types of evidence provided could be seen as a quick ending-point for any further investigation, but Abram uses this lack of clarity instead as a strength.
It is this consideration of myth as a powerful locus for cultural investigation that Abram uses to drive ongoing questions. Many of these questions he cannot answer, but they remain in the reader's mind and illuminate broader approaches to historical and cultural discourse. Certainly this approach is not exactly new - cultural history is a field which has been going for a long while now - but Abram writes in a clear and insightful way to examine the cultural potency of myth, deliberately and purposefully bringing readers along even as the possibility of finding actual 'answers' to the 'original' or 'true' version of a myth, its interpretation, surrounding ritual, and evolution become all the more indistinct and unreachable.
Early on, Abram also uses as a case study the mythic tale of Thor and his battle with the world serpent, providing a concrete example of how a single story appears over time in a variety of sources and a variety of permutations. This ability to hang his ideas and insights on to specific examples is prevalent throughout the book and very useful for the reader. The subject matter may not quite be popular history, but rather than dwell on the surface of the familiar myths, Abram explores their contexts and in doing so, highlights their impact rather than their meaning. [End Page 203]
Turning from an overview of the evidence base, he examines the uses of ritual and religion as entwined aspects of myth, locating the Norse Gods across practice and paradigms in early Germanic cultures. Abram builds his key thesis in this second chapter by refusing to separate out myth from its historical or ritualized cult context and refusing to accept, in the more traditional 'mythic narrative' which would have him searching for the ultimate truth behind the stories, the pure 'ur-version' at the well in the roots of the world tree.
Having established his cultural context and the theoretical framework in which his book is operating, Abrams turns more closely to the use of myth across history: four specific historical periods to be precise.
He first explores the 'golden age' of Norse myth (850-1050), again using concrete examples to allow the reader to grapple with the vigorous wordplay and similes embedded in court poetry; typically references to the gods present them as exemplars or metaphors for great acts undertaken by great men. Again this locates the myth within specific ritualized practices, indicating the cultural currency embedded in the myths and the vague boundaries of their appeal. Abram uses the court poetry to also investigate one of the 'standards' of Norse myth - the concept of Valhalla and its use as a site of validation for fallen kings, reinvigorating even those kings who died in battle (and thereby had to have lost the battle, generally) with Odin's approval.
Successive eras are examined through the spotlight of how the myths were used and appropriated across a period of religious conflict (Norway, 950-1000), woven into conversation narratives of the early Christian establishment (Norway and...